Updated to add statement from Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver.
As a powerful organization backed by some of the nation’s wealthiest conservative families prepares to meet in Denver, a nonpartisan watchdog group is drawing attention to the way in which that organization has influenced Colorado’s own General Assembly.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, commonly known as ALEC, will hold its annual conference July 19-21 at the Hyatt Regency Denver. The nonprofit, which calls itself a nonpartisan organization of state lawmakers “dedicated to the principles of limited government, free markets and federalism,” is supported by more than 300 corporations and foundations, including several tied to the Coors family and to Charles and David Koch, the Kansas billionaires who have funneled millions of dollars into conservative causes. The oil and gas industry, as well as tobacco companies, also support ALEC, which is not required by law to report its sources of income.
The group does not make its membership rosters public, although it claims that close to one-third of the nation’s 7,300 state lawmakers are members, as well as about 300 corporations and foundations. According to its most recent IRS filing, ALEC took in more than $8.9 million in 2015.
Common Cause, a nonprofit watchdog group that has been critical of ALEC and its “secretive corporate lobbying,” issued a report July 13 that points to several bills in the 2017 Colorado General Assembly that it says came from ALEC.
Among them: a new law on free speech on college campuses and another that puts tighter controls on civil asset forfeiture, the practice by police departments of confiscating property tied to illegal activity.
ALEC comes up with model legislation, crafted by lawmakers and business interests, and then passes those model bills along to its legislative members. Those bills, sometimes on a word-for-word basis, then become bills that the members try to pass.
ALEC’s model bills, according to the Common Cause report, “attempt to write benefits to its corporate donors into state law.” In Colorado, “although the bills cover a wide range of special interests, the underlying theme is their propensity to satisfy corporate needs. Corporate members of ALEC expect their interests to be advanced by state legislators who join the organization,” the report said.
In a statement, ALEC did not respond to the issues raised in the Common Cause report. “The Council provides a unique opportunity for state lawmakers, business leaders and citizen organizations from around the country to share experiences and develop state-based, pro-growth models based on academic research, existing state policy and proven business practices,” said Bill Meierling, ALEC’s chief operating officer. “Only elected officials (public-sector members) can introduce policy for discussion and potential adoption as model policy, and only the Board of Directors, comprised solely of elected officials can approve policy for the organization. All adopted model policy merely represents the perspectives of the American Legislative Exchange Council and its members.”
ALEC has adopted model legislation based on the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) that it promotes to other states and has pushed model bills on gun rights, turning over public lands to state governments and parent choice regarding their children’s education, sometimes viewed as code for vouchers or charter schools.
“We all pay the price for ALEC’s secretive corporate lobbying with lower wages, more pollution, and a smaller voice in government,” said Elena Nunez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause. “What’s worse is ALEC’s lobbying is taxpayer-subsidized. Every Coloradan who believes in transparent and accountable government should be outraged by this report. This is not how democracy is supposed to work.”
In 2012, Common Cause filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service, claiming ALEC functions as a corporate lobbying group, which violates its tax-exempt status.That complaint is still pending, according to Common Cause. In Tennessee last year, lawmakers approved a $100,000 taxpayer grant so that its lawmakers could attend ALEC meetings.
The Common Cause report points out that Coors-tied foundations have donated about $50,000 per year to ALEC for more than 20 years. Donations from Koch-affiliated foundations is is estimated at more than $1.5 million over a 20-year period, according to the report.
Next week’s conference will include sessions on everything from tax policy (including TABOR), the environment, education, labor and business regulations, communications (including high-speed Internet), transportation and infrastructure and pension reform.
The public is not permitted to attend the conference. According to Common Cause, media is allowed to attend keynote addresses featuring guest speakers, but the meetings between corporate lobbyists and state lawmakers are strictly off-limits. Reporters have even been escorted out by law enforcement when they try to talk to their own state’s lawmakers who are in attendance at the conference.
Colorado lawmakers don’t usually divulge their memberships in ALEC, but a review of campaign finance reports show some use their campaign contributions to pay for ALEC memberships, at $50 a pop, or to cover the cost to attend ALEC conferences.
Virtually everyone in Colorado’s legislature tied to ALEC are among the General Assembly’s most conservative members.
Colorado Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City is this year’s state chair for ALEC. Rep. Lori Saine of Firestone is the state vice-chair and in March was named ALEC’s “Freedom Legislator of the Week.” The Common Cause report identifies 19 other current lawmakers, all Republicans, who have paid dues to ALEC or received scholarships to attend ALEC conferences, including Senate President Pro Tem Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling and Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud, who in 2013 was named ALEC’s national legislator of the year.
According to the report, in 2017, Republican lawmakers carried at least five bills and one resolution that mirrored language found in ALEC model legislation. Two of those measures identified in the report were signed into law. The first was a bill that banned free speech zones on college campuses, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village and Republicans Sen. Tim Neville of Littleton and Rep. Steve Humphrey of Ault. Both Neville and Humphrey are ALEC members.
The second is more controversial: a bill on civil asset forfeitures, which was strongly opposed by police departments and local governments but was backed by district attorneys, the Colorado Bar Association and the American Civil Liberties Union. Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the bill, with some misgivings, on the very last day he could sign or veto legislation from the 2017 session. Neville and Humphrey also carried that bill, along with Democratic Sen. Daniel Kagan of Cherry Hills Village and Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver.
”I am not nor have I ever been aligned in any way, shape, or form with ALEC,” Herod said Thursday. “Asset forfeiture reform has been a priority for progressives for decades, and HB17-1313 was a significant step forward. The connection that Common Cause is trying to make is disingenuous at best. Asset forfeiture has been a huge problem in communities of color and low-income communities as well as rural Colorado. Policies that end the practice of policing for profit are a good thing for for all of us.”
Kagan could not be reached for comment.
But Neville insists that the language from the the civil forfeiture and free speech bills did not come from ALEC.
“We worked on that with a lot of different people,” Neville told The Colorado Independent Wednesday. “Both of those bills were crafted to deal specifically with Colorado issues. Neville also pointed out that he was never asked by Common Cause about the origin of either bill.
“It’s pretty disappointing,” Neville said, that because a bill may come from some other group that some people don’t approve of, that the bill should be besmirched just for that reason. “If it’s good policy and puts more power into the hands of the people, isn’t that what we should be focusing on?” he asked. But he insisted the language in the free speech and civil forfeiture bills came from the work of a number of Colorado groups from both the left and right, including the ACLU and the libertarian Institute for Justice.
Bridges told The Independent that he would not have sponsored the bill if it were ALEC-model legislation. “Free speech isn’t a conservative value – it’s a Colorado and American value. ALEC may have had a bill on this issue, but this was an important issue, and the bill was a great example of working across the aisle to solve real problems.” Bridges also noted that if ALEC wanted a bill on free speech on campus, “this definitely wasn’t it, and given their far-right ideology I don’t think they’d be happy with the result. We created a unique Colorado solution that came from hard bipartisan work, not from ALEC.”
The Common Cause report does point out three lines in the four-page free speech bill that are identical or similar to ALEC model legislation. The civil asset forfeiture bill, an 11-page bill, according to the Common Cause comparison, shares common words and a half-dozen common phrases. Both bills passed with strong bipartisan votes in both chambers.
Nunez responded that “Our report shows a side by side comparison of ALEC model language and Colorado legislation. The side-by-side comparison between [the civil forfeiture bill] and the model ALEC bill speaks for itself: Section 1 of [the bill] uses the majority of the language, verbatim, contained in Section 1 of the model bill. In the report, we simply show the similarities between the two bills, and do not make any claims beyond this point.”
Denise Maes, director of public policy for the ACLU Colorado chapter, said they received calls during the session from Democrats who asked the ACLU not to back the free speech bill because they believed it was modeled on ALEC legislation. The bill did go through changes in its passage through the state Senate and House, and Maes said that her group, which is nonpartisan, just wants good legislation and didn’t have a concern about a possible tie to ALEC. By the time the civil forfeiture bill got through the House and Senate, “I would be surprised if it were modeled after anything, after all the changes,” Maes said.
The report also includes bills that drew more heavily on ALEC model legislation, such as a measure on warrants for electronic communications, a resolution calling for a constitutional convention for term limits for federal lawmakers, and a perennial favorite of conservative lawmakers, a right-to-work bill designed to end mandatory union membership. The bills, some of which were verbatim identical to ALEC model bills, did not pass.